Sumter School District Must Move Forward

The Sumter School Board recently voted to reopen Mayewood Middle School after it had been closed. Its students were assigned to a newly renovated and program-enriched R.E. Davis College Preparatory Academy. The vote to return about 140 students to Mayewood, located a little more than a mile away, was made without public notice and seems ill advised. Fortunately, because the vote was out of order, the board can now reconsider its decision. A prior board closed Mayewood after careful deliberation and public hearings prior to the current school year. If the board is going to actually reopen Mayewood, it must publicly state why this abrupt reversal is necessary. The decision affects every student and school in the district, not just Mayewood.

Our community has made unprecedented progress over the last few years. Our commitment to making Sumter the best place to work, play, study and pray is the biggest reason for our success. We as a community understand that we cannot afford to be divided, that working together we can realize even greater achievements. We can assure you that your city, county and legislative leaders have taken the concept of "Team Sumter" to heart. We are working together as never before, and the results are most encouraging - even impressive.

However, Sumter School District appears to be in turmoil again. Remember that not too long ago we learned that the district had overspent its budget by $6,000,000, had depleted its fund balance ("reserves") and had been placed on "fiscal watch" by the state. A former employee was recently indicted for financial wrongdoings. These problems arose during a previous administration, not during the tenure of the interim superintendent. The district was moving forward; but now the board is revisiting difficult but necessary decisions made by a prior board and rejecting the help of citizen volunteers who have been giving their time and money to help schools and students. All of this controversy is happening during an all-important superintendent search with candidates likely watching news reports and reading the newspaper and asking themselves, "Is this where I want to work? Is this a board I want to work for?" (The answer is "yes." Our community is ready for you to lead us to be the best.)

We think that a large school with few students costs more per student to operate than a school with an optimal number of students - the low population school still needs administrators, teachers, cafeteria and custodial services, clerical staff, etc. We think that money saved by closing Mayewood increases the per-student expenditures for every other student in the district and better utilizes district resources. If we are correct, then reopening a small school seems unwise from a financial standpoint and incredibly shortsighted given our district's financial problems. We would argue that Mayewood students are better served at R.E. Davis. For instance, R.E. Davis, a rural school, is now a college preparatory academy. We would like to know how parents, teachers and students feel about the changes.

Regardless of what we think, we as county council chairman and mayor are not elected to run schools - the school board has that duty and responsibility. So what we ask is that the board explain why is it wise from a financial standpoint and from an education standpoint to reopen a school for 140 or so students who we have no reason to believe are not doing well at their current location. What happens to the new academic programs at R.E. Davis? What does it cost to reopen Mayewood? How does the move make public education better in Sumter? How will the new costs affect other students and the district's requirement to attain a fund balance of $12 million by the end of fiscal year 2020, let alone demonstrate financial responsibility? Will a different school have to be closed?

As we argue about reopening a previously closed school, Kershaw County is building an Applied Education Technology Campus in conjunction with Central Carolina Technical College. Sumter could be doing this, but for inaction by the school board. We and others have been pushing the district to build such a school for several years. Our Legislative Delegation was in a position to help it become a reality. Land has been purchased. Such a school is a proven vehicle for improving educational success for students. But reopening Mayewood now appears to be the priority of the board. Why is that the case? We need to know.

Education is not the answer to all our challenges in Sumter, but it is surely a part of the answer to many of those challenges. Quality public education is essential for a community that is striving for sustainable success. We must continue moving forward; we cannot go backward. The Sumter School District Board needs to be on the field with "Team Sumter." We are counting on them to get the district off "fiscal watch," hire a dynamic superintendent and move Sumter to the top of the class! If we work together, there is no limit to what we can accomplish.

By Mayor Joe McElveen and County Council Chairman James T. McCain Jr.